Who Is Responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse?

I'll never forget the advice my mother gave me after I graduated from college and was embarking on a career in journalism: "Eat your vegetables, remember to floss, and never, ever, get in the middle of a fight between Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg." She paused and looked at me knowingly and added, "Especially if the fight involves Peter Beinart's controversial book The Crisis of Zionism." My mother was nothing if not prescient.

So I'm not going to get in the middle of the fight. I'm going to stand on the sidelines and try to clear up one point that I think Goldberg fails to understand.

Goldberg writes: "The main problem with Andrew's view of the world, and with Peter Beinart's book, is the systematic downplaying of Palestinian mistakes in order to blame the impasse in the peace process on Israel." This is an important issue, because if the impasse isn't mainly Israel's fault, you might ask why Beinart wants to address the problem with a boycott of goods produced by Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In assigning responsibility for the impasse, there are two kinds of questions you can ask:

1) Why has the peace process thus far failed to lead to a two-state solution? To answer this question you'd need to delve into the details of Camp David, Oslo, etc., etc. I haven't done that, but for purposes of argument let's accept Goldberg's judgment that there's plenty of blame to go around, and that the Israelis bear no more of it than the Palestinians. (He writes, "It's fairly obvious that both sides in the conflict have screwed-up, in different ways and at different times.")

2) Why is it that it's starting to look as if a two-state solution is impossible--or, at least, close to impossible and getting closer every month? The answer to that question, it seems to me, is the settlements. There are just too many settlements, interconnected by too many roads that restrict the movement of too many Palestinians, for a two-state deal to result in anything Palestinians could proudly call a "state." It would take a massive exertion of political will on Israel's part to uproot enough settlements for a two-state deal, and Israeli politics are nowhere near permitting such a thing. And here's the kicker: As the settlements grow, the amount of political will it would take to uproot them grows, while (as Hussein Ibish recently noted) the supply of such political will drops, since the Israeli constituency for the settlements grows.

If you look at the meaning of "impasse"--the word Goldberg himself uses--it's actually more about the second question than the first. An impasse is a dead end--a road along which further progress is impossible. And the settlements are the thing blocking the road. (At least, that's my view, and Goldberg, too, has in the past emphasized this pernicious effect of the settlements.) 

At the risk of belaboring the metaphor: Suppose two people--a Palestinian and an Israeli--are in a car driving to a town called "two-state solution". Suddenly they see that a giant tree has been cut down and impedes further progress. The two people can, if they want, argue about which of them is responsible for not having gotten past this point before the tree was felled. (Who dawdled at rest stops more, etc.) That's question number one, and Goldberg says the two are about equally to blame. Question number two is: Who cut down the tree that now lies in the middle of the road?

That would be Israel. And the tree would be the settlements. (Which isn't to say that the settlements were necessarily put there in order to block a peace deal, though no doubt some settlers had that motivation--just that that is the settlements' effect.) And this would explain why Peter Beinart wants to put pressure on the settlements--because he thinks that they are what stand in the way of progress and that it's not too late to do something about that. I hope he's right about that last part. But in any event, I don't think his proposal involves "systematically downplaying" past Palestinian mistakes. His proposal, as I understand it, is about question number two, not question number one.

[Update, 3/21, 8:40 p.m.: I want to emphasize that I'm not saying that the settlements are the only current obstacle to a two-state deal. There are attitudes and positions on both the Israeli and Palestinian side that are obstacles. But the settlements are the biggest, closest-to-immovable obstacle, and they're getting closer and closer to immovable as the settler population continues to expand. If you ask the growing number of people who think it's too late for a two-state solution why they think that, a large majority will say, first and foremost, "the settlements."]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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